Industry Market Trends

Engineering Employment and Earnings Outlook

Feb 15, 2011

With the national unemployment rate lingering at 9 percent and job creation at a virtual standstill, conditions in the job market are far from good. But signs point to strong demand for engineers in the short-term future. Meanwhile, engineers' earnings continue to be high, both in terms of starting and mid-career salaries. Is the outlook for working and prospective engineering professionals brighter in 2011 and beyond?

Despite difficult general employment conditions and a sluggish rate of job creation in the United States, signs indicate that engineers remain highly sought-after professionals both here and abroad. While there is still widely considered to be a shortage of skilled engineers in the U.S. and their earnings consequently top salary listings, technical skills may not be enough to guarantee employment in an engineering field in 2011 and beyond.

According to a 2010 talent demand survey from staffing research firm Manpower, engineers are ranked fourth on the list of the most difficult positions to fill worldwide, while engineering technicians are ranked third. Based on responses from more than 35,000 employers around the world, 31 percent of employers said they had difficulty filling positions at their company, up from 30 percent in 2009.

Engineering positions have proven difficult to fill in nearly every region of the world. In the Americas, engineers were ranked eighth on the list of hardest-to-fill jobs, while technicians were ranked first; in the Asia-Pacific region engineers were ranked third and technicians second; and in Europe and South Africa engineers were ranked sixth and technicians third.

In the U.S. alone, engineer positions were ranked eighth in hardest-to-fill jobs, while technicians, including engineering technicians, were ranked fourth. Among 2,000 U.S. employers surveyed, 14 percent said they faced difficulty filling positions at their company,

Although engineering positions are some of the toughest jobs to staff properly, that does not necessarily mean that having engineering skills is a guarantee of employment. Now that they have grown accustomed to operating with slimmer workforces and having individual employees handle multiple lines of work, employers are increasingly seeking broader and more flexible skill sets even in technical fields.

"[E]mployers have gotten more specific about the combination of skill sets that they are looking for, not only seeking technical capabilities in a job match, but holding out for the person that possesses the additional qualities above and beyond that will help drive their organization forward," Jeffrey A. Joerres, Manpower Inc. chairman and CEO, said in an announcement of the findings. "This conundrum is upsetting to the ubiquitous job seeker, who will need to take more responsibility for his or her skills development in order to find ways to remain relevant to the market."

In particular, the ability to communicate well, adapt to changing conditions and be receptive to continuous education and training processes that refine one's skills are becoming highly valued in today's job market. Technical expertise must often be coupled with these more abstract qualities for an engineer to remain competitive in today's economy.

"To traverse this rapidly changing employment landscape, it is extremely important that engineers remain current on the latest technological advances, which are changing at an equally dizzying pace," IEEE-USA Today's Engineer Online explains. "Today's engineers can keep pace by earning advanced degrees, taking continuing education courses, and attending seminars, workshops and similar ventures. Taking a passive approach to your career today could leave you more susceptible to [a] layoff, or in not being considered for advancement."

According to the 2010-2011 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Department of Labor, there were approximately 1.57 million engineers in the U.S. as of 2008, with about 36 percent concentrated in the manufacturing industries, and another 30 percent in the professional, scientific and technical services. This total is projected to grow to 1.75 million by 2018, an 11 percent increase.

The largest employment growth in engineering through 2018 is expected among biomedical engineers (72 percent), followed by: environmental engineers (31 percent); civil engineers (24 percent); petroleum engineers (18 percent); mining and geological engineers (15 percent); industrial engineers (14 percent); agricultural engineers (12 percent); nuclear engineers (11 percent); aerospace engineers (10 percent); health and safety engineers (10 percent); and materials engineers (9 percent) — all of which will increase at the same pace or faster than the national average.

"Overall job opportunities in engineering are expected to be good, and, indeed, prospects will be excellent in certain specialties," the Labor Dept. explains. "In addition to openings from job growth, many openings will be created by the need to replace current engineers who retire; transfer to management, sales or other occupations; or leave engineering for other reasons."

Of course, hiring growth in most engineering fields will not be uniformly distributed, as some areas are better for certain career paths than others. A report by found that hot spots for engineering jobs are often in areas with high densities of defense contractors and high-tech firms, including California, the Pacific Northwest, Texas, Arizona and Washington, D.C. Bioengineering jobs are more prevalent in Philadelphia and New Jersey, while mechanical and industrial engineering positions are frequently found in the South.

There has been an uptick in demand for energy-related engineering in North Dakota and Colorado, notes, while mining engineers are particularly sought-after in the Rocky Mountain states. Demand for electrical and civil engineers, particularly those involved in infrastructure work, tends to be high across the country, but especially in the Northeast "where the infrastructure is older and in need of repair."

In terms of earnings, engineers continue to be at the top of the national salary rankings. Compensation research firm PayScale offers a list of the top 10 college degrees by starting and mid-career salaries in 2010-2011:

  1. Petroleum Engineering — Starting median pay: $93,000; mid-career median pay: $157,000
  2. Aerospace Engineering — Starting median pay: $59,400; mid-career median pay: $108,000
  3. Chemical Engineering — Starting median pay: $64,800; mid-career median pay: $108,000
  4. Electrical Engineering — Starting median pay: $60,800; mid-career median pay: $104,000
  5. Nuclear Engineering — Starting median pay: $63,900; mid-career median pay: $104,000
  6. Applied Mathematics — Starting median pay: $56,400; mid-career median pay: $101,000
  7. Biomedical Engineering — Starting median pay: $54,800; mid-career median pay: $101,000
  8. Physics — Starting median pay: $50,700; mid-career median pay: $99,600
  9. Computer Engineering — Starting median pay: $61,200; mid-career median pay: $99,500
  10. Economics — Starting median pay: $48,800; mid-career median pay: $97,800

Despite being ranked ninth on the list, computer engineering salaries are poised to rise in the near-future as the tech industry grows increasingly competitive.

"Some established tech companies are offering big raises to retain their best engineers as fast-growing companies like Facebook Inc. and game company Zynga Inc. are hiring engineers as fast as they can, adding to the talent shortage and helping to drive up the workers' value," the Wall Street Journal reports.

Engineers are still in high demand, but the changing nature of the U.S. workforce and of employers' expectations means that they will have to display a broader set of skills and continuously train to remain competitive. Given present conditions, engineering salaries are likely to stay high for the foreseeable future, making it a good time to be an engineer.


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IEEE-USA Today's Engineer Online, March 2009

Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition

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